Panel Moderator: Anil Cheriyan – Managing Partner of Phase IV Ventures

Panelists: John Trainor – CIO of Aaron’s, Kevin Switala – CTO of Gannett Fleming, and John Crowley – CIO of Fidelity National Financial

“It’s all about EQ not IQ”

As we sit in a room with over 40 IT leaders that are responsible for very large teams, we unpack the topic of IT industry talent needs.  The overwhelming response: we need individuals that have two key qualities, creative problem solving and intellect.  The employee that is the most sought after is the one with a balance of being willing to transcend the functional silos while also understanding the needs of the business to technically solve for these issues.

Is it a “Cloud Architect”?  Or a “Network Expert”?  Or a “Security Expert”?  Nope.  At least not according to the panel of IT execs at Advocate’s 2018 Insider Summit.

An IT leader’s world is one riddled with digital transformation projects ranging in areas from mobile to social to analytics to APIs to cloud to legacy systems to you name it.  These leaders need employees with a willingness to continually adapt and think about what you [both the business owner and IT owners] do and how you are doing it.  Reflect.  Strive to change.  Want to change.

So why did our group not mention that the biggest issue in the talent gap was certain specific skills needed?  Experience has told us that some of the people with the best skills aren’t willing to adapt.  However, individuals that are bright and willing to adapt will excel and be a better asset in the long run.  You can pay to develop the skills for some of these technical transformations; however, it is more beneficial to employ those that can adapt, get to the truth, and learn through on-the-job training.

Our group reflected on their experience and lessons learned in five main areas: inheriting a demotivated team, handling major budget cuts, dealing with change, building trust, and mentoring or coaching.

What if you inherit folks that were not encouraged or enabled to change or train?  In short, get involved and empower them to start thinking about how to solve for the next five years’ worth of challenges.  Many demotivated IT teams have had nothing but negative feedback about the business for quite some time.  A successful turnaround for one executive included the following steps:

  • Meet with the team members one-on-one
  • Make key strategic hires – including consultants to fill the gap
  • Exercise your EQ not IQ and be a cheerleader to motivate and protect staff from criticism
  • Create a mindset for them to be open to change

Another executive faced a situation where the industry went through a major financial crisis.  To keep the business running, he had to cut his budget…in half!  The result was a major staff reduction.  But when the industry stabilized, he had to decide what next steps he could take to build staff in an economical way.  He did NOT pursue an offshore strategy immediately.  Instead, he set up a center of excellence in Pennsylvania and began hiring bright graduates from Carnegie Mellon University.  He noted that certain colleges are equipping these students with some of the best problem-solving skills anywhere.

“I don’t want you to do the dishes.  Instead, I want you to WANT to do the dishes”.  This is one of my favorite movie quotes as a wife begs her husband to help her in the daily grind.  As an IT leader, how do you get your employees to want to change?  The panel’s conclusion, celebrate when people do something in a new way (even if it is a failure).  One executive went so far as to celebrate failed attempts at innovation on Slack.  Intentionally going public with enthusiasm for the right behavior – behavior which will succeed in the future.  One executive referenced a time when the company received a Glassdoor posting that was negative.  Instead of hiding it or ignoring it, he sent it to the entire team.  He admitted to his failures on some of the items and stated: “Here is what we are going to fix.”  They created a safe place – not to “fail fast” but rather to “learn fast.”

Finally, building a great IT team requires you to spend more time with your B and C players, not just your A team.  Your B and C players need you more as a teacher/coach and could become an A student.  After all, they likely want to be successful so consider how you can assist their growth.  Think about cross-training these team members so you have fewer points of failure as well.  The panel mentioned another title, “Move Your Middle.”  The concept is that 20% of your team will be high fliers.  However, if you move the rest of the 80% at least 1% up, you greatly improve your team’s output over time.  The mix of the skill levels is what makes for a healthy team mix; having only high fliers could cause infighting and having only middle performers could cause your team to not meet its full potential.

One final parting insight from the group, there is no such thing as a bad team, only bad leaders.  It is our job to digitally transform ourselves.  We must remain focused on fixing our own mindset as we can’t expect our folks to change if we don’t.  “Heal ourselves before we can heal others,” as one IT leader proclaimed.  Sage advice for us all!